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Child Safety: School Bus Still Best

Experts weigh the merits of changing safety standards of school buses.

Using Seats for Safety continued...

"That's a position that we ascribe to as an industry," says Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation. "We try to follow [NHTSA's] guidance whenever we can."

The American Academy of Pediatrics, however, wants to see three-point safety belts in every school bus, a position it has held since 1996. "We are still in favor of that," says Denise Dowd, MD, a member of the academy's Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention and chief of the section of injury prevention at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.

Dowd says too little is known about injuries to conclude that buses are safe enough without seat belts. "There's not any good tracking system or accumulation of data for nonfatal injuries that you can tie directly to school buses," she tells WebMD.

What's more, compartmentalization is designed primarily to protect passengers in head-on or rear-end collisions. What happens if, for example, a bus tips over?

In October 2005 such an accident occurred in the rural community of Plainfield, N.H. A bus taking kids home from school ran off the shoulder of a narrow, winding dirt road and flipped on its side. None of the 28 children on board was injured. All but one were wearing seat belts.

It's easy to imagine how unrestrained kids on the high side of the overturned bus could have been hurt, or could have injured others, by tumbling out of their seats. But no one knows for sure, because this kind of accident hasn't been studied. "There's a lot of evidence that's lacking," Dowd says.

According to Superintendent Russell Collins, Plainfield school buses have been equipped with lap belts for more than a decade. But in a sparsely populated district, where the bus stops for most students at their own driveways, school administrators haven't had to weigh safety vs. reduced passenger capacity. "That issue has never come up," Collins says.

Bus Stop Safety

More kids die when they're hit by a school bus than when riding in school buses, according to the NHTSA.

It could happen like this. A second-grader clambers down from the school bus and starts for home, when a sheet of paper, a very important handout from his teacher, slips out of the binder he carries. Caught by the wind, it sails under the bus. He dashes after it. The brake disengages. The engine revs. The wheels turn.

Again, relative to how many millions of kids are let off at bus stops every afternoon, very few fatal accidents of this sort actually happen. Children routinely get lessons at school about the danger of getting in the way of buses, among other bus stop safety rules. Various mirrors help bus drivers see all around the bus, and gates that swing out on the exit side remind children not to cross too close in front of the bus. Drivers are also trained to follow procedures intended to prevent them from accidentally running over their passengers.

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